Ron Washington has taken some hits but he’s still swinging

OPINION - Keep in mind, this man is only the third African-American to manage a team to the World Series...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Image is a major part of professional sports. It can make or break a career. And when cocaine or any type of illegal drug is involved, calamity is not too far away from wreaking havoc on even the most honored career — especially when the athlete is black. So when Texas Ranger Manager Ron Washington became the first of his kind, in Major League Baseball to fail a drug test for the use of cocaine in July of 2009, the sports world gasped. Here was just one of four Black men in professional baseball to lead a franchise—embarrassed.

What he was going to do next?

Demons are usually exorcized in private, but now his life was never more public. Now he would always be known for this. Five decades as a player, coach and manager were possibly down the drain.

So Washington did what he thought was the right thing to do at the time, he offered his resignation, which the Rangers gracefully declined. Instead they offered him the opportunity to redeem himself to his family, the franchise and the public.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself personally, and I recognize that this episode was an attempt to dodge personal anxieties and personal issues I needed to confront,” he said. “That was the wrong way to do it. It was self-serving, and believe me, not worth it. I know you will ask, and so here’s the answer: this was the one and only time I used this drug. I made a huge mistake, and it almost caused me to lose everything I have worked for all of my life. I am not here to make excuses. There are none. I am not here to ask for sympathy. That would be asking too much.”

Somehow sympathy is what saved him, because today Washington is able to stand before the public and talk about the nightmare that he created for himself, but live out the dream of every manager who has donned a uniform for a major league team. He’s managing in the World Series.

Keep in mind, this man is only the third African-American to manage a team to the World Series, Cito Gaston, being one, and Dusty Baker being the other.

The Rangers, who won 90 games to win the AL West Division, believe the team came together for this World Series drive in March, just before the season, when he stood in front of his players, with tears in eyes, and confessed about his error in judgment.

“The mood was kind of weird when we had the meeting, because nobody knew anything,” Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson said. “I was sitting there thinking he was going to tell us he has cancer.”

It’s been 35 years since Frank Robinson integrated baseball’s managerial fraternity. But little progress has been made. According to a list compiled earlier this year by Gary Norris Gray of the Black Athlete Sports Network, there have been 14 African-American managers in the past 40 years. It’s not a perfect list — he mistakenly put Jerry Manuel in his list of Latino and Hispanic managers, for example — but it’s reasonably comprehensive: Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Larry Doby, Davey Lopes (who is descended from Cape Verde, an island off the coast of West Africa), Hal McRae, Lloyd McClendon, Willie Randolph, Jerry Royster, Ron Washington, Maury Wills, Manuel, Robinson, Gaston, and Baker. Of those 14, only 11 ever managed a full season — Royster, Doby, and Wills were midseason replacements who were canned before they ever got a chance to manage their 162nd game — and just nine ever won as many as 200 games, a total reached by 250 other managers in history.

Gaston remains the only African-American manager ever to win a World Series. And yet he had to wait more than a decade, from 1997 to 2008, to be given another managing job — of the 22 managers who have won multiple World Series, he’s the only one that has happened to, with the exception of two former player-managers more than 70 years ago (Bill Carrigan and Billy Southworth).

So needless to say, Washington’s accomplishment is special as he leads the Rangers – who have waited 50 years for its first World Series appearance – against the San Francisco Giants.

“That night I (messed) up,” Washington said. “I brought shame to my family. I hurt a lot of people. It was torture.”

It nearly cost him his job. Rangers President and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels had to decide whether he was responsible enough to lead their team, which includes center fielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug addict.
“The challenging part was hearing it, talking over it with Ron and then dealing with it,” Daniels said. “The public side was more challenging on Washington than it was for us. We had already made our decision. We never wavered.”

Washington was hanging out in his hotel room with friends when he tried cocaine for the very first time. Like many before him, he figured no one would know, that was until his name randomly came up for a drug test, as required by Major League Baseball. He immediately called league officials and said he knew he was about to test positive. He then broke the news to Daniels and assistants Thad Levin and Don Welke. That’s when he offered his resignation.

“I was in total shock,” Ryan said. “Then I was mad. And then I was disappointed.”
For two days Daniels and Ryan talked about Washington, and should he stay or go. They then waited on the report from an MLB drug counselor and decided Washington deserved a second chance.

Without Washington, the Rangers will tell you, they wouldn’t be in the World Series. They wouldn’t have beaten the Tampa Bay Rays (who had the best record in the AL) and New York Yankees (the defending World Series champions) to win the pennant.
“We are a reflection of our manager,” Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “We have talent, but we’re in the World Series because of (Washington).”

Washington said he still gets taunted by visiting fans. But overall letters in the mail have been positive, even uplifting. He said he stores them in a box in his office. And every now and then he may get a few nasty phone calls, but it’s nothing like it was when he first got to Texas.

“When you win, people treat you different,” Washington said. “I was walking along the streets (of New York), and all of these people of color were coming up to me. And they were saying how very proud they are of me.”